Oudenaarde > Oudenaarde 158.6km
It’s time for Flanders. For the first time, the women’s edition features the Koppenberg, a climb that makes the race significantly harder. We’ve had lots of sprint finishes in recent races, the attackers will be hoping for a tough race and not another Balsamo win.
Starting in the afternoon means the women’s race will get the better of the conditions. We’ll have lots of sun, but temperatures won’t get above 7 degrees.
In the space of 32km, the bunch must tackle the Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, Taaienberg, Oude Kruisberg, Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. This is where the race is won, it’s an incredible difficult period of racing. From the top of the Pater there is just 13km left.
Trek – Segafredo, SD Worx and FDJ are the strongest teams in the race, they’ll dictate how the race develops. They’ll all be keen on isolating van Vleuten as early as possible, she’s the main threat. The introduction of the Koppenberg is good news for the Dutch superstar, if she smashes this climb, there is a chance the front group will be tiny at the top. The problem will be if anyone has multiple riders at the front, this will make her life very difficult. The teams I’ve already mentioned have three riders each who can win this race, that gives them a massive tactical advantage.
I would expect a front group to eventually form with multiple riders from the big teams, which will force van Vleuten into chasing and using up vital energy, then the winning move will go. For the right move to disappear, it must feature at least two of the big teams, or it will be chased down. It’s impossible to predict when the move goes, remember, this race isn’t all about the climbs.
Annemiek van Vleuten – the pressure is on the defending champion. Movistar strengthened in the winter, the team will hope that Arlenis Sierra lasts deep into the race, as well as Emma Norsgaard. If AVV is isolated early, it will be almost impossible to win the race. If she has riders to chase down moves until the Kwaremont, she has every chance of taking another title. Only one rider has successfully defended their title, that was Mirjam Melchers back in 2006, it’s very hard to do.
SD Worx – as usual, they arrive with multiple options. They’ll look to Kopecky, Reusser, van den Broek-Blaak and Vollering, that’s a very strong unit of riders. The locals would love to see Kopecky win the race in her Belgian champs jersey, and she’s likely to be their best option considering her fast sprint after a tough day. Reusser has the potential to go long, she’s looked very strong in recent races. Vollering has only raced twice this year, we’ll have to see what her current shape is like. They’ll try and keep as many riders as possible in the front group and then rotate the attacks until they break the elastic, it’s a tactic that’s worked very well for them in the past.
Trek – Segafredo – after dominating recent races they arrive full of confidence. All eyes will be on Balsamo, can she take her fourth consecutive world tour win? The introduction of the Koppenberg is bad news for her, but she did cope with the Kemmelberg last weekend in Gent-Wevelgem. In previous races we’ve seen Trek commit fully to a sprint, but this isn’t a race where you can do that, they’ll need other plans too. Longo Borghini is the obvious choice, her form is now growing, but I still get the impression she isn’t at her very best. Van Dijk has been hugely impressive, but the steep climbs are too hard for her. Maybe this is an opportunity for Lucinda Brand, but it’s hard to see her beating the big stars in this race. I think I’m trying to say that Trek won’t win this race.
FDJ – Cavalli, Uttrup Ludwig and Brown, that’s a trident! Grace Brown excites me for this race, especially the way she flew up the Kemmel last week. She was 3rd here last year and I get the feeling a big win is just around the corner. She’ll look to attack on the Koppenberg, it’s a great chance for her to put pressure on some of her main rivals. Sitting waiting in the wings will be the two climbers, both of whom are very gifted. The French team have a huge chance of taking the biggest win in cycling.
Marianne Vos – 2nd in Gent-Wevelgem was a good return to racing after a period of illness. It’s nine years since she won here, it’s proven to be tricky for her in recent editions. Her team is stronger than it’s been in recent years, expect to see lots of Labecki and Henderson. They’ll look to stay around Vos as long as possible, so she doesn’t have to use energy chasing attacks. Vos will be praying the race ends in a reduced sprint, she’ll be the massive favourite to win in that scenario.
I’m going bold! She’s impressed me in recent weeks, I’ll take a huge win for Grace Brown.